Issue Date: March 31, 2008
Isotope Production Honored
Oak Ridge National Laboratory's production and distribution of radioisotopes for peacetime uses was designated an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark at a ceremony at the Tennessee facility on March 6.
About 150 ORNL staff, retirees, and guests were on hand as ACS President Bruce E. Bursten presented a commemorative plaque to Thomas Mason, director of the lab. Bursten said the laboratory's distribution of radioisotopes, which began in 1946, "demonstrated the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, providing medical, scientific, and industrial benefits to society."
The society's National Historic Chemical Landmarks program started 15 years ago to help chemists recognize and celebrate the profession's rich history. "The 60 landmarks that we have designated so far demonstrate how chemists have expanded the frontiers of knowledge, developed lifesaving drugs, advanced industry, and created new products," Bursten said. Among the landmarks that have been honored are development of Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic; nylon, the first synthetic fiber; and penicillin, the first effective antibiotic.
He told ceremony attendees that all landmarks must satisfy three criteria: "They must represent seminal achievements. The achievement must have occurred 25 or more years ago. And the achievement must evidence a significant impact and benefit to society."
Bursten didn't have to travel far to get to the festivities. He is Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, only about 30 minutes away. The university and Battelle jointly manage ORNL for the Department of Energy.
In addition to Bursten, James B. Roberto, ORNL's deputy director of R&D, and chemist Michelle Buchanan, associate laboratory director for physical sciences, also gave presentations on ORNL at the gathering. The landmark designation was championed by the ACS East Tennessee Section, and the dedication was attended by many section members and section Chair Lawrence Kennard of Walters State Community College, Morristown, Tenn.
ORNL, which is one of three major entities on the 34,000-acre Oak Ridge reservation, employs 4,200 people, about 350 of whom hold chemistry degrees, most of them Ph.D.s. "This is the highest density of chemists in the national laboratory system," Buchanan said. The other facilities on the reservation are the Y-12 National Security Complex, which manufactures nuclear weapons components, and the former K-25 uranium enrichment facility, which shut down in 1987 and now houses the East Tennessee Technology Park.
Like Y-12 and K-25, ORNL was built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. ORNL's graphite reactor, code-named X-10, was designed and built in only nine months. It used neutrons emitted in the fission of uranium-235 to convert uranium-238 into plutonium-239, which was destined to be used in nuclear weapons.
At the end of WWII, the laboratory's fate was in doubt. The landmark brochure, published by ACS, quotes then-ORNL administrator, Alvin Weinberg, as saying, "During those days ... everything seemed ambiguous." It seemed unlikely that the government would fund peacetime uses for the lab. But under Weinberg's guidance and that of Eugene Wigner, then-director of R&D, the reactor was repurposed to produce and distribute radioisotopes for civilian—in particular therapeutic and diagnostic—purposes. Until it was decommissioned in 1963, the graphite reactor was used to make these isotopes.
In the first year of production, the lab made more than 1,000 shipments of radioisotopes, mostly iodine-131, phosphorus-32, and carbon-14. By 1950, its shipments neared 20,000.
Over the years, many thousands of shipments left Oak Ridge, destined for use in research laboratories and medical centers. Nuclear medicine began in the postwar years with doctors using iodine-131 to diagnose and then to successfully treat thyroid diseases. Today, more than 10 million therapeutic procedures and more than 100 million diagnostic tests using radioisotopes are performed each and every year worldwide.
In 1976, with the perspective of 30 years, longtime ORNL director Weinberg wrote, "If at some time a heavenly angel should ask what the laboratory in the hills of East Tennessee did to enlarge man's life and make it better, I daresay the production of radioisotopes for scientific research and medical treatment will surely rate as a candidate for first place."
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